Like sticks of barley sugar

It's years since I saw a stick of barley sugar, and this perhaps dates Donald Hall's otherwise quite timeless writing. But I like the resemblance of a tower to a fat, straight confection.This is from a lovely book - Hall lived in Romania in the early part...

Bullocks under the bonnet

Imagine the car bucking and lurching over pot holes and road bumps, creating the random jolts and yanks of a rodeo ride.This is from a lovely book - Hall lived and travelled in Romania in the early part of the 20th century, and wrote this affectionate,...

Like a burst of hope

A heartening simile in a vivid, gripping narrative of humans ground between the shifting tectonic plates of contradictory but equally totalitarian ideologies. There is neither much sunshine nor hope in the book, but such hope as there is is tenacious and...

Like sunlight on a landscape

You can see an overcast English landscape of rolling hills and fields, and a sudden break in the clouds pierced by a spotlight of sunshine.  This is a lovely novel, with the sunny wit of Jane Austen and the earthiness of George Eliot.‘And as for Molly, her...

Nervous as horses

A jumpy, unsettling opening to a powerful page that drives to the source of fury in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. You can imagine horses prancing, shying, frisking, snorting and whinnying, eyeing askance an oncoming tempest. You can imagine that what's to...

Eyes like lakes

A surprising simile: lake-like eyes reflecting the sky.  Something touching too about the contrast of apparently wide open eyes, and a face that resembles a rocky, ugly landscape. 'His eyes were almost transparent as though in a country of ugly hills one...

 

Someday the history of metaphor will be written and we shall at last grasp all the truths and misconceptions in which this intensely speculative subject abounds.  

 

Source: Jorge Luis Borges, On Writing, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2010, p. 45

Metaphors and similes are an imaginative galaxy which greater minds than mine have explored. That doesn’t stop me gathering dazzling and original examples to enrich the common stock and enliven human exchange, expanding the choice of vigorous and beautiful ways to sharpen how we think, read, write and speak.

Blank as a wall, wall as a blank

The identical twins Ladies Cora and Clarice aren't just lookalikes, but also one another's echo chambers.  They live in their own quarters of the rambling pile of Gormenghast, driving themselves round the bend with thirst for 'power' and its resulting...

Dark and small

What a powerful simile, conveying something inward-turning and dangerous through its vivid portrayal of cranial size as a small, corroded bullet. His skull was dark and small like a corroded musket bullet. For other bullet related metaphors and quotations,...

Reasoning in vain

A convincing form of fruitlessness, as it's hard to imagine a pious vulture.  The sister in question is an awkward customer, not easy for her entirely reasonable brother to reason with.'One glance at his sister was sufficient to make him realize that to...

Don’t stand there staring…

A colourful way to deter someone from staring at you and, in case of need, to insult your staff.  Stenching mules. Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books are not only an imaginative masterpiece but also a ready sourcebook of new and inventive invective. Your...

As expressionless as …

Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy is packed with original metaphor and simile.  In Titus Groan, the first book, I noted two similes for 'expressionless', both appropriate, though I think I prefer the second. See also his description of a blank stare.'Her...

Rain like remorse

Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast has a lot of weather, giving an overwhelming impression of dismal, dank, damp, darkness of cloud, storm and rain. Here a storm rages until it exhausts its own anger and then just pours remorse onto the earth. 'They had waited...

Wasps quick-bending

One of the many stretch metaphors used by Homer. When you see a comma followed by 'as ...' it can be a signal to take a good intake of breath to carry you through to the end of the image. Here it is feisty bees and quick-bending wasps who convey the...

Sweet-running river

Flowing like the sweet-running river it evokes, a meandering metaphor for Hector's strength and movement, likened to a thoroughbred horse breaking free and seeking out its remembered watering spots and pastures.  Other riverine triologisms include:...

This is the world

Keats was one of the most life-loving people you could hope to meet, grasping with all his force every chance of happiness, even evanescent, and despite being repeatedly assaulted by unforgiving 'Circumstances'.  He looks life's fragility in the eye...

As cold as …

A letter from Keats to his beloved Fanny, with a kindly injunction to wrap up warmly.  I loved the solicitude and the bracingly original simile for a chill wind.'You will be as cold as a topsail in a north latitude – I advise you to furl yourself.'...

A sky of rags

A marvelous view of a heavily clouded sky; you can imagine vast firmament rags being saturated with water by a giant hand, before being crumple-stuffed into the welkin.'... and above the blurred outline of the Twisted Woods the sky was choked with crumpled...

Fuchsia and ruby

A gift from the eccentric but kind-hearted and protective physician to the young daughter of the Earl and Countess of Gormenghast, slightly neglected by her parents for being but a girl, and having a certain shyness and feistiness.A striking description...

Sourdust’s skin

Sourdust is the aged, dusty, crumbling Master of Ceremonies and custodian of endless ritual, rites and rules in the world of Gormenghast castle, having digested a thousand tomes of protocol.  He shuffles and coughs his way in reminding the Earl, Countess...

Prunesquallor’s voice

The physician of Gormenghast is one of the most likeable, humane and sane of the colourful characters that people the story; while being every bit as idiosyncratic as the rest of them. His strange voice is complemented by a slightly grating,...

A rolling boulder

Nanny Slagg meets an old man of the Dwellers, the humble people who live limpet-like on the outer walls of Gormenghast castle.  Here he greets the castle's envoy with the deference expected.  The description of his voice suggests a low-frequency...

Newly born, oldly wise

A lilting double simile here, each with a timeless simplicity.  Let's add them to the common stock and start to describe things as being 'old as the world', or 'wise as the roots of trees'.  Or you could shorten the last one to 'wise as trees', given our...

Rich with rust

An unusual simile for rust, though of course, once seen, it seems natural. A beech hedge in winter has an intense and often uniform rust colour. '... and the corners were stacked with old weapons that were as rich with rust as a hedge of winter beech.' See...

Ignoring your foes

You can see Mr Flay side-stepping the presence of his mortal foe, Swelter, as one side-steps other unpleasantness in one's path. Perhaps he could delicately pinch his fingers to his nose to preserve himself from any sweltering smells.'It had therefore been...

Foxy fickle

Foxes have had a bad press due to their apparent wiliness.  Whether justified or not, this alliterative allusion deserves to enter common usage. Please, next time you refer to someone as fickle, use this vulpine simile. '... as fickle as a fox.' See...

Beware the bureau mind

Steerpike is icily calculating and glacially manipulative.  He doesn't have a warm emotion to his name beyond the impulse to self-advancement by any means and the satisfaction of seeing human puppets dance to his tunes. An extreme version of a common...

How the other half lives

Gormenghast has two populations segregated by the walls of the rambling castle. The people outside are treated as lower order beings, but some individuals among them are portrayed with sympathy and admiration, throwing their humble nobility into sharp...

Towering insult

Gormenghast is a vast, sprawling town of a castle, which seems to have spread organically.  Here one of its towers is likened to an aggressive finger, jabbing at heaven.  See, as a contrast, the similarly graphic description of the hovels limpet-glued to...

Vague but unmistakable

A perfectly horrific way to intimate the dreadful anticipation of a mortal enemy.  Here Flay realizes, when the hated Chef finally appears in his teeming, steaming subterranean domain, that he had been sensing him all the time, like the growth of a...

As though unweaned

The birth of the 77th Earl of Gormenghast, innocent Titus Groan, gives celebratory license to the scullions and other assorted assistants and slaves of the Great Kitchen, to drink themselves into stupor.  Here they are portrayed like starving babes at the...

Firsthtly…

The chef is a Rabelasian character oozing excess, and none too likeable. The birth of Titus, 77th Earl of Gormenghast, gives him and his underlings license to drink to oblivion in scenes redolent of Brueghel. Apart from being able to produce gargantuan...

Collective contentment

Among the most cherished beings in Mervyn Peake's sprawling, imaginative Gormenghast, are the teeming masses of white cats belonging to the Countess.  She has more love for furred and feathered friends than for humans, even those of her own producing,...

As sharp as …

A flint-chip razor simile for a beak's sharpness. Elsewhere in Tarka we encounter birds skewering frogs through the head with their beaks, or otherwise impaling prey. 'Its beak was sharp as a rock-splinter.'   Source: Henry Williamson, Tarka the...

Moon as feather

A lyrical description of the sun, the moon, and the dreams of an otter - that he might swim, unhunted and unhungry, down to the sea with his otter-son. The metaphor makes it seem a wispy crescent moon lying smile-curved in the sky, and so resembling a...

A cry like …

Williamson pays close attention to the calls and cries of birds and animals, and here he distinguishes between the mutual call of a dog and a bitch otter. I found the description of White-tip's cry extraordinary. 'White-tip answered him. Her cry was like...

Like fighting polar bears

What a way to capture the roar of a powerful river in full flux. '... back into the lower river again, which roared and heaved like fighting polar bears.'   Source: Henry Williamson, Tarka the Otter: His joyful water-life and death in the two rivers,...

As quick as …

Tarka the otter is hunted but fights ferociously and strategically. Here he bites back as hounds close in. He gives as good as he gets. See another image for speed conveyed by the slither of a viper, and one drawing on a quick drip tempo. 'Tarka bit and...

As fast as …

How fast can a pattering heart beat?  As fast as water can drip before it starts dribbling. You can't quantify that transition, but you know it when you see it. Other speed similes use a viper to convey quickness: one by Williamson and another by...

Like a broken viper

A wildly meandering river likened to a viper broken by a buzzard - Williamson's inventiveness is a wonder, and almost always nature-drawn. 'Seen by day from the hilltops, the river lay its course like a viper broken by a buzzard's beak and claws, marked...

Big blackberries

A berry crushed into service as a metaphor for a mud-mark. 'Tarka's deep seals in the lower ooze showed like big blackberries crushed in the mud.'   Source: Henry Williamson, Tarka the Otter: His joyful water-life and death in the two rivers, illus....

O dandelion sun!

A big round dandelion arching the sky - what a deep yellow sun this is, and I like the 'light-smitten height' too. 'When the sun, like an immense dandelion, looked over the light-smitten height of Cosdon Beacon, Tarka was returning along a lynch, or rough...

Of bitterns and beaks

A moss stalk and seed likened to a bird and beak.  Lovely. 'Over and under and past boulders of granite, splashing upon mosses, whose browny-red seeds on the tall stalks were like bitterns standing with beaks upheld.'   Source: Henry Williamson, Tarka...

As silent as …

Another simile for silence, here combined murderously with talons sharp as black frost.  See other silent similes by Williamson and by Charlotte Bronte. 'Silent as snow and fog, staring like the Northern Lights, taloned like black frost, the Arctic Owl...

Of flakes and feathers

How perfect an image for snow-flakes - like swan feathers drifting gently to the ground. Elsewhere, Williamson again uses feathers as a metaphor, to describe the moon. 'As Greymuzzle walked on the ice upstream, snow began to fall in flakes like the...

Wind like liquid glass

An astonishingly limpid description of the clarity a wind pours over a landscape. 'For two days and two nights the frosty vapour lay over the Burrows, and then came a north wind which poured like liquid glass from Exmoor and made all things distinct.'...

Tar marks

Otters are voracious piscivores so it's appropriate to liken the black marks they have left to fish-bones. And let's not forget the Greek-based unpronounceable answer to the Latinate piscivore: ichthyophagous.  Save that one for your next spelling test....

Of beetle fragments and spider tunnels

What an intricate way to describe a shipwreck pulled apart by tidal ebb and flow. It also reminds me of the novel by Italo Calvino, The Path to the Spiders' Nests, which describes small grassy gates woven by spiders - see insert. '... a destroyer lay...

Of pebble-play and glass-green

A lasting impression of Tarka the Otter is of the playfulness of these and other creatures. Tarka plays with anything to hand or paw: a water spout, a pebble, a dung-ball, a cocoa can. Here he is intrigued by a water-smoothed glass pebble, and Williamson...

Bright and blinking

An alliterative description of a bone-like beacon. 'The bright eye of the light-house standing like a bleached bone at the edge of the sandhills, blinked in the clear air.'   Source: Henry Williamson, Tarka the Otter: His joyful water-life and death...

Poplars in November

Yes, poplars look like giant feathers poked in the ground, here bedraggled by the onset of winter. 'In November the poplars were like bedraggled gull-feathers stuck in the ground.'   Source: Henry Williamson, Tarka the Otter: His joyful water-life and...

As smooth as …

Of course, this simile is obvious when you see it, but have you ever seen it before?  Please try incorporating it into your simile-store. 'Over fall he slid, smooth as oil.'   Source: Henry Williamson, Tarka the Otter: His joyful water-life and death...

Scent as colour

I like metaphors that use one of our five senses to convey another - here a visual image serves as a metaphor for a scent. And I must still be a child as vivid colours catch my attention more than ever. 'The scents of the ducks were thick and luring as...

A luminous grub

Never have I seen the moon likened to a luminous cocoon-spinning grub... wonderful. 'At night the young moon was like a luminous grub spinning a cocoon around itself in the sky.'   Source: Henry Williamson, Tarka the Otter: His joyful water-life and...

Of curling waves

Tarka the otter enjoys his first exposure to the sea, with a wave being likened appropriately to a shell-fish. 'A wavelet lifted Tarka and passed behind him, another curled like a long razor-fish shell and broke over him. He shook the water from his...

As serene as …

A novel image for serenity. Use it next time you are describing someone or something serene. 'He was serene as glass.'   Source: Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (London: Bounty Books, 2012 (1847)), p. 518 Photo credit: MichaelGaida at...

As still as …

So even the regular church-going Victorians only did their duty on Sundays. A nice way to convey stillness - an empty church on a week-day. 'It was as still as a church on a week-day.'   Source: Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (London: Bounty Books, 2012...

As powerless as …

Bronte has a wonderful range of simile and metaphor, here demonstrated in powerlessness being likened to stubble thrown into a furnace. See also another of her images of vulnerability. 'Physically, I felt, at the moment, powerless as stubble exposed to the...

A quivering of shattered pinions

What a potent, heart-rending image of longing, echoing the Spanish word for lame or broken-winged, aliquebrado. See an earlier image of impotent vulnerability in Jane Eyre. '... only a sad heart broke it. ... it demanded him with ceaseless longing; and,...

Hollow like …

Did you ever think of the sky as being hollow?  I like the image of its domed roundness as the inside of a mussel shell. 'At midnight the western sky was pale blue and hollow like a mussel-shell on the seashore.'   Source: Henry Williamson, Tarka the...

Of merry audacious jays

Two fine metaphors here, describing the nature and the cry of jays, though the first of these is by now no doubt politically incorrect. I like also the 'noise of tearing linen'. 'They were among birds what the Irish are among men, always ready in a merry...

Of kingfisher colours

This description of a Halcyon Kingfisher packs a rainbow of colour metaphors, from pink to green to blue and brown.  Elsewhere the book describes hunted kingfishers strung up sans wings, their exquisite feathers being used for female fashion plumage. And...

Of buds and hooves

Who would think to liken the shape of a bud to the hooves of cattle? And that cuckoo singing all night! 'The buds of the ash, sullen for so long in their coverings shaped like the black hooves of cattle, broke into browny-green sprays.  The cuckoo sang all...

A cord of connection

Here Mr. Rochester conveys his connection to Jane Eyre and the vulnerability it causes inside.  Attachment made physical. '... it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in a...

A linnet of hope

Birds are regularly used by Bronte as emblems of vulnerability or fragility - here this small creature is depicted as a source of hope. 'It seemed as if a linnet had hopped to my foot and proposed to bear me on its tiny wing.'   Source: Charlotte...

Of gander and falcon

A surprising juxtaposition of birds to convey a contrast. '... the contrast could not be much greater between a sleek gander and a fierce falcon.'   Source: Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (London: Bounty Books, 2012 (1847)), p. 247 Photo credit:...

As lively as …

You can imagine the spark lighting up a prim Victorian drawing room, when the sexes are brought together within a confined space. 'The ladies, since the gentlemen entered, have become lively as larks...'   Source: Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (London:...

As pale as …

Henry Williamson is a master of metaphor and simile, and his slim book Tarka the Otter is as densely scattered with them as a healthy meadow with flower seeds. 'When the moon gleamed out of the clouds in the east, pale and wasted as a bird in snow, the...

As soft as …

Having never even noticed the buds of the willow, this simile for softness and greyness struck me. How observant of Williamson to store this away as a description of otter's fur.  But then his whole book is an exercise in meticulous and painstaking...

As large as …

An unusual simile for size, here referring to bubbles. Bubbles feature largely in Tarka the Otter, often blown by the otter himself as he swims beneath the water or as an expression of fear. 'Near the bridge the bubbles rose as large as oak-apples.'  ...

Silent as …

Another richly original simile for silence, here attributed to the noiseless movement of a rolling mist. See another silent simile by Williamson, and a mist-related one in Jane Eyre. 'Over the meadow a mist was moving, white and silent as the fringe of...

As noiselessly as …

How many ways to describe quiet? This is one of the most original I have found, along with another describing the silent movement of mist itself and one conveying the lethal approach of an owl. 'They then descended the staircase almost as noiselessly as a...

Of billows and surges

A finely tumultuous image for turbulent and mixed emotions. 'Till morning dawned I was tossed on the buoyant but unquiet sea, where billows of trouble rolled under surges of joy.'   Source: Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (London: Bounty Books, 2012...

The fore- and after-taste of vengeance

A heady metaphor for the taste of vengeance, followed by the bitter aftertaste. It reminds me of a quotation by Nelson Mandela along the lines that resentment poisons you before it kills your enemy. 'Something of vengeance I had tasted for the first time;...

Equal parts hard and very hard

The appropriately named housekeeper at Jane Eyre's orphanage has qualities the patron of the establishment values. He believes - firmly - that little tikes living on charity need to be regularly reminded how lucky they are to have a crust to eat. Nowadays...

Of globs and blubber

This charming image - of a priest no less - had me searching all kinds of strange photos to illustrate it.  The deep fat fryer won the day.  See Mervyn Peake's Swelter, another character of the same proportions. 'He was so fat that globs of blubber formed...

As big as …

A vivid way to vaunt the vastness of vine-fruit. 'The grapes seemed as big as twelve-year old boys.'   Source: Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation, trans. P.A. Bien (London: Faber and Faber, 1983), p. 502 Photo credit: Free-Photos at...

As vindictive as…

Apologies to all camels if this sullies your good character, but I liked the simile and had fun finding a photo of a camel who might be described as having a vindictive look. '... vindictive as a camel.'   Source: Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last...

Of smoke and goats

A refreshing image for a choking smoke.  I tried to find a picture of goats who looked as though smoke might be getting up their nose. 'The smoke was so thick that the goats sneezed seven miles away.'   Source: Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation,...

All the doors of Israel

It's now a month since I read this book and I still have a burning impression of dazzling light and heat. Here the sun is stalking the Israelites like a lion. The sun came out of the desert like a lion and beat at all the doors of Israel.  See also his...

See me, pity me

Simeon is one of the strongest, most dynamic characters in this vibrantly retold story of Christ's life.  He is Jesus' uncle and the rabbi of Nazareth, and is hanging on to life by sheer force of will because God has told him he will see the Messiah before...

Stars as pearls

Strings of star-pearls draped around a beauteously bejewelled night! 'The stars were strings of pearls around the neck and arms of the night.' For another pearly metaphor, see this from Virginia Woolf's Orlando.   Source: Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation,...

Yeast needed

Liked this way of portraying a skinny, hollowed out man - made without leaven, flat as a pancake. 'A hairless, cross-eyed man with a sharp skinny snout jumped up. He looked as though someone had forgotten to add the yeast when he was kneaded.'  ...

God’s royal artery

A compelling way to single out a great river and to map the world's waterways - as so many veins and arteries of their maker. This is part of an alarmingly vivid dream which troubles the crucifix-making son of a carpenter. 'And flowing from one end of the...

The Promised Land

What makes for a promised land?  Name the elements you would choose.  This one has three timeless components, and is rosy-dawn luminous. '... the Promised Land, made up of dew, wind and age-old human desires, and illuminated like a rose by the dawn.' See...

Wrinkled like a raisin

It's obvious when you read it, but we don't tend to use 'wrinkled like a raisin' despite its pleasing alliteration. Let's try to change that! 'A tiny old man, slim, and wrinkled like a raisin, had stood up on tip-toe.' For another view of an old man, and...

Vigorous and well-preserved

A surprising way to describe an old man's forehead, having the roundness and roughness of an oyster shell.  Or might it be alluding to the sand-polished inside smoothness of the shell? 'He was well-preserved and vigorous for his age, and had a forehead...

The Land of Canaan

Kazantzakis seems to have studied - absorbed - the places of the Bible, bringing individual landscapes and particularities vividly to life. I can't recall a land being likened to air, rendering it ethereal and haze-shimmering. '... the Land of Canaan, like...

Of struggle and triumph

This terrific, vital novel was written by Kazantzakis, author of the more famous Zorba the Greek, to share the story of a man who struggled and won.  It seems to have been intended to reassure us that whatever we might struggle with in this life, including...

A star hanging in the east

This novel burns with the heat of the desert and I like this single star's fiery amplitude. '... a single star, large like a mouthful of fire, hanging in the east.'   Source: Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation, trans. P.A. Bien (London: Faber and...

The desert of Idemea

Lovely likening of the heat-haze quivering of a desert to the rippling pattern-dappled back of a leopard. 'To the south, the quivering desert of Idemea shifted like the back of a leopard.' See also his leonine metaphor for the merciless Biblical sun....

Like a surgeon’s knife

Adam Bede is so far from being like a timid woman that this is striking, and Eliot uses the idea of recoiling from a surgeon's knife to convey the anguished passivity and powerlessness of a powerful, active man when confronted with a wrong he can't act to correct. As...

To listen as to a recurrent music

What a beautiful description of listening out for someone's voice.   Despite Adam's listening for her voice so, it doesn't yet occur to him that he might fall in love with her. And voices, how memorable, individual and yet evanescent they are!  When you remember the...

Fate waiting in the wings

All aglow, this bright afternoon when two characters cross paths, blush, and entwine fates.  Impossible to have any intimation on such an afternoon that it could lead to disaster.  Only the writer senses it, and tries to warn the reader. It would have done no good to...

Departing hope

A grimly compelling way to evoke a louring sky.  Compare this 'departing hope' with Vasily Grossman's description of the rising sun like a burst of hope. 'Under a leaden-coloured sky, with a narrowing streak of yellow, like a departing hope.' Source: George Eliot,...

Worrying like a butter churn

You've surely spent moments and even nights of your life in mind-churning worry, as described here by a women who knew what she was talking about as she managed her own butter churns and other dairy paraphernalia. ‘... and worret myself as if I was a churn wi’ butter...

As wise as …

George Eliot's Adam Bede has two characters who use language vibrantly and robustly, one of whom is the proud and capable farmer's wife, Mrs Poyser.  Here is what she has to say of men who sit in the pub boozing: as wise as cod fish with red faces. I've never seen a...

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